The Media Today

The mess at G/O Media: Deadspin edition

October 30, 2019

On Monday, Paul Maidment, the editorial director of G/O Media, wrote staff at Deadspin—a G/O-owned website which is nominally about sports but actually about so much more—with a long-expected order: stick to sports. Where other topics “touch on sports, they are fair game for Deadspin,” the memo (obtained by the Daily Beast’s Maxwell Tani) read. “Where they do not, they are not.” The same day, other executives reportedly removed a post in which staff said they were “upset” with the site’s new, ad-heavy orientation, and asked readers for feedback. (Staffers said the post’s removal violated their union terms; G/O Media denied this.) Yesterday, there followed the digital equivalent of an insurrection. Deadspin filled its homepage with new and old articles that were decidedly unstuck from sports, including “Woman Furiously Shits On Floor of Tim Horton’s, Throws It At Employees [Update]”; “What Did We Get Stuck In Our Rectums Last Year”; and “The Adults In The Room,” in which Megan Greenwell, who recently quit as the site’s top editor, excoriated G/O leaders’ conduct as “the professional equivalent of a small boy dressing up in his father’s suit: He is role-playing, deluding himself but no one else.”

G/O hit back. In the middle of the day, Barry Petchesky—Greenwell’s interim replacement and author of “What Did We Get Stuck In Our Rectums Last Year?”—announced on Twitter that he had just been fired “for not sticking to sports.” (Petchesky did not respond to CJR’s questions about his firing.) Media Twitter exploded. Current and former colleagues rowed in behind Petchesky: Greenwell called him “the heart and soul of Deadspin” and his firing “the stupidest decision”; Laura Wagner, a reporter at the site, called Jim Spanfeller, G/O’s chief executive, “a real piece of shit.” Journalists outside the G/O fold were mad, too. “What G/O is doing to Deadspin right now is maybe the worst corporate mismanagement of a publication I’ve ever seen?” Andy Cush, a writer and musician, asked rhetorically. Rolling Stone’s Jamil Smith added, “The new owners of Deadspin and its sibling sites appear to be little more than nihilists. Their end game seems to be no more Deadspin, Jezebel, or the Root.” Ben Collins, “dystopia” reporter at NBC News, summed it up: “The people running Deadspin absolutely hate Deadspin.”

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The writing was on the wall before Maidment put it in a memo. Since G/O Media’s birth earlier this year—when Great Hill Partners, a private-equity firm, bought Gizmodo Media Group from Univision and renamed it—its famously spiky journalists have clashed repeatedly with their new corporate overlords. In July, staffers complained to Tani of Spanfeller’s “insane proclamations,” including suggestions that coverage respond to advertiser interests. Deadspin has been at the eye of the storm, particularly since Wagner reported a story—that Spanfeller undermined in a pre-publication note to staffers—accusing Spanfeller of hiring cronies without a public recruitment process. Soon after, Greenwell quit, citing interference and condescension.

On her way out, Greenwell said sticking to sports was “not something I feel I can ethically do.” Such directives aren’t unique to Deadspin—staffers at ESPN, in particular, have repeatedly grappled with them. Yesterday, following Petchesky’s firing, Maidment insisted that G/O’s version of the edict is open-ended, and won’t preclude Deadspin from discussing politics: “Sports touches on nearly every aspect of life,” he said in a statement, calling the site’s mandate “incredibly broad.” An expansive view of sports coverage is better than a narrow one. But in Deadspin’s case, it still misses the point. The site’s aggressive coverage of totally non-sports topics—including the media industry—has shaped its DNA, not to mention its readership. Who can forget its dystopian video of Sinclair anchors parroting identical anti-media propaganda?

In recent years, the media business has been plagued by voracious owners swooping into distressed newsrooms and imposing targets that have little to do with journalistic quality. The saddest thing about Deadspin’s situation is that that isn’t what’s happening here. The site, by all accounts, is healthy: it hit a traffic record earlier this year and was nominated (pre-G/O) for a national magazine award. According to staffers, G/O is obsessed with pageviews—and yet Deadspin’s non-sports coverage, which G/O is trying to cut, has consistently outperformed the site’s averages on that score. In her exit post, Greenwell insisted Deadspin’s story is not the cliché of quixotic truth-tellers holding back the tide of financial efficiency; rather, she said, “it’s that the people posing as the experts know less about how to make money than their employees, to whom they won’t listen… They know what they know, and they don’t need to know anything else.”

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In our media hellscape, Deadspin’s plight seems particularly pointless. Where will it go from here? Per the New York Times, Maidment is now in direct control of the site. But its staffers won’t relent without a fight. Following Petchesky’s ouster, the union representing G/O staffers tweeted that his firing “will not stand. We will have updates soon.” We’ve all been warned.

Below, more on Deadspin:

  • More interference?: By the end of yesterday, the non-sports insurrection was gone from the top of Deadspin’s homepage, replaced with sports content. The union said “Deadspin staffers had nothing to do with the changes on the front page.”
  • The most scathing take of the day: Writing for The Outline, Jeremy Gordon let rip at Deadspin’s owners: “If it beggars your belief that a group of highly paid idiots can detonate an original, profitable, well-read publication out of ego and callousness, well: It’s happening here, and could happen again, even if there isn’t another site like Deadspin to ruin.”
  • Sticking to sports: Yesterday—in a huge shift for college sports—the National Collegiate Athletic Association ruled that student-athletes will now be allowed to profit from their names, images, and likenesses. On Twitter, Mina Kimes, of ESPN, noted that Deadspin has led the way on coverage of why and how student-athletes should be paid.
  • Splinter out: Earlier this month, G/O Media management shuttered Splinter, another news site with a fiercely independent voice.

Other notable stories:

  • Gabriel Snyder, CJR’s public editor for the Times, revisits the paper’s controversial early story, written in May by Kenneth P. Vogel and Iuliia Mendel, on the Bidens and Ukraine, and Trumpworld’s weaponizing of their connection. “Is the piece, as Vogel has described it, a seminal journalistic work that opened the gates to the entire Ukraine saga? Or is it, per its critics, clickbait better suited to Breitbart than the Times?” Snyder asks. The Times, he writes, can be “an insular and closed-minded place. Analyzing work like the May 1 story in a vacuum absolves the Times of any responsibility once a story is published—if it meets the traditional guidelines of accuracy and balance. But that’s not enough.”
  • On the subject of Ukraine, House impeachment investigators heard yesterday from Alexander Vindman, the National Security Council’s top expert on the country. Unlike previous witnesses, Vindman had listened in on Trump’s notorious call with Volodymyr Zelensky; he told investigators that the call “transcript” the White House released afterward omitted key phrasing. As befits such damning testimony, the right-wing smear machine went into overdrive, highlighting Vindman’s birth in Ukraine to question his patriotism. (The US gave Vindman a Purple Heart for his service in Iraq.) On Laura Ingraham’s Fox show, Bush-era lawyer John Yoo accused Vindman of “espionage”; on CNN, Sean Duffy, a former Congressman hired as a pro-Trump pundit, also laundered a dual-loyalty smear. Host Brianna Keilar later accused Duffy of “anti-immigrant bigotry.”
  • This time last year—in protest of Saudi Arabia’s role in the assassination of Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi—world political and business leaders shunned a ritzy annual investment conference in the kingdom. This year, they’re back, and the conference is buzzing; the US government, which stayed away last year, sent Jared Kushner, Rick Perry, and Steven Mnuchin. Alan Rappeport and Stanley Reed have more for the Times.
  • Jonathan Peters, CJR’s press-freedom expert, assesses a lawsuit a police consultancy has filed against Netflix and Ava DuVernay; the firm claims that When They See Us, DuVernay’s dramatization of the Central Park Five case, contains defamatory references to its interrogation techniques. The suit, Peters says, must clear a high bar to succeed.
  • More lawsuit news: a judge partially revived a defamation claim filed by the family of Nicholas Sandmann—the Covington Catholic High School student at the center of a viral incident with a Native American elder at the Lincoln Memorial in January—three months after rejecting it. It’s not clear why the judge reconsidered, the Post’s Paul Farhi writes.
  • The Knight Foundation and Gallup are out with a new study on trust in local news. Local outlets are still more trusted than national ones, but they “don’t exist in a vacuum,” the report finds. “The same forces that have eroded trust in the national media are now beginning to filter down to the local level,” including “perceptions of partisan bias.”
  • A shake-up at NBC News: the division’s digital arm is shuttering NBC Left Field, its digital video studio, Sara Fischer reports for Axios. Around 12 employees will lose their jobs, but will be invited to apply for new roles as NBC News Digital widens its staff by 20 percent in coming months. Its science and tech coverage will also rebrand and expand.
  • The Post’s Ben Terris asks whether the Bennet brothers—Michael, a Democratic candidate for president, and James, opinion editor at the Times—can save the Establishment. “The Bennets are the anti-Trump dynasty, institutionalists at a time when their very institutions—Capitol Hill, the mainstream media—have come under attack.”
  • And Lauren Alix Brown, director of special projects at Quartz, has died. She was 37. S. Mitra Kalita, who hired Brown at Quartz, writes on Medium that she and Brown “called ourselves ‘Ideas editors’ and set out to change the definition of who gets to opine: kids who love soccer, unemployed Greek teens, playwrights obsessed with Robert Mugabe.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.